Canadian Security Magazine

Lack of top-secret email access just one issue with how Ottawa handles intelligence

The Canadian Press   

News CSIS foreign interference national security

By David Fraser in Ottawa

Special rapporteur David Johnston found in his first report on foreign interference that Canada’s public safety minister does not have access to top-secret emails that national security officials use to share intelligence — including regarding potential threats against MPs.

It was just one example of glaring information-sharing problems within the government that Johnston said must be addressed.

The former governor general found that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was aware of indications Chinese officials were contemplating action directed at Chinese-Canadian MPs and their family members abroad.


There is no intelligence indicating Beijing took steps to threaten the family of Conservative MP Michael Chong specifically, the report said, in response to allegations at the heart of the recent controversy.

But there was intelligence that indicated Chinese officials were seeking information about Chong and his relatives, Johnston said.

The materials he used to come to that conclusion are classified and not being shared publicly.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau initially said the information never left the security agencies involved, but his national security adviser Jody Thomas later confirmed that it reached her predecessor’s office.

At the time, CSIS said it intended to provide Chong and a second unnamed MP with a briefing, Johnston’s report said. Chong later said that a briefing at the time did not include any details about a threat to his family.

Johnston’s report confirms CSIS also sent information about that to the public safety minister and his chief of staff in a top-secret email — but they never received it, with the public service confirming to Johnston that they don’t have access to the right system.

Chong told a parliamentary committee that failure to notify him of the threat was a breakdown in the machinery of government. He declined an interview request on Tuesday about the contents of the report.

Johnston said the lack of communication had been the most prominent example of poor information processing between security services, the public service and politicians.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has since formally directed Canada’s spy agency to investigate and disclose any foreign threats against parliamentarians, their families, their staff members or Parliament itself.

The report said this was an “important step.”

“But it is clear to me that better systems are essential to process the enormous amount of intelligence produced every day,” Johnston said.

He said in the report that Canada’s security services often address intelligence reports to departments rather than individuals.

“It is rare for specific names to be mentioned, so specifically who at these departments received these memos cannot be determined from the documentary sources,” the report said.

Johnston described a “cloudy” picture of how intelligence is shared and said no one keeps track of who received specific reports, meaning intelligence can be sent but isn’t always consumed.

Staff at the Prime Minister’s Office “speak” of being given a large binder in a secure room with an agency client relations officer present, a short time to review it, with no context or prioritization of the material and no ability to take notes (for security reasons),” the report said.

He went on to write that the binders given to staffers could include a mix of topics from around the world, but nobody pointed out what should be prioritized.

Johnston said the problem exists throughout the government and there is “no guarantee” intelligence will make it to the person who is supposed to be reviewing it, or initiating an action based on it.

Johnston said this has led to situations where information that should be brought to the political level does not get there “because it can be lost in the sea of material that floats through the government.”

He said the general lack of accountability “is not what is required of the current era of international relations and the attendant threats.”

Mendicino’s office said it has accepted Johnston’s recommendations and is reviewing how to implement them, including those relating to communications between his office and national security agencies.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2023.

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